Saturday, November 25, 2006

Coate Farm out-buildings better protected by law

Coate Farm out-buildings better protected by law 

 Today, the Richard Jefferies Society is celebrating the news that Elaine Pearce, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has authorised a new listing description for the Richard Jefferies Museum at Coate that would better serve to protect the out-buildings and built features in the grounds of the old farm. The Society wrote to English Heritage in late 2005 when they discovered that the description of the Grade II listed building on the Marlborough Road, that was first designated as such in October 1951,only mentioned the old thatched cottage and museum and not the other farm buildings and man-made structures that were so important to the Victorian author’s writing [1]. Specifically the group requested that the old barn, dairy, the pig-sties, the ha-ha wall [2] and the main garden wall along with a field boundary marker stone were included in the description. The Society were delighted to learn that their request had been fully investigated and their wishes granted [3]. A spokesperson for the Richard Jefferies Society said: “Over thirty years ago we were fund-raising to restore the farm-buildings that the owners, Swindon council, planned to demolish although by this time, the thatched cow-sheds and hay-rick barn had already gone. At that time we were helped by celebrities such as John Betjeman and Spike Milligan who were enthusiastic Jefferies’ fans. "Visitors to the Museum are so thrilled when they can look at features and buildings that they have read about. For example, there is a square drain in the ha-ha wall where Jefferies describes watching wildlife shelter. We are delighted with the news that what remains might now be better protected.” The Jefferies Museum will be open on Wednesday 13th December from 10am to 4pm. The Richard Jefferies Society is holding a meeting at the Jefferies Museum on Saturday 2nd December at 2pm when there will be an opportunity for people to delve into some of the archive files that the Society has built up over the last 50 years or more Both events are free and open to the public. More information from Jean Saunders, Secretary of the Society, on 01793 783040. ENDS Editor’s notes: [1] Richard Jefferies was born at Coate Farm near Swindon on 6th of November 1848. The author spent his childhood exploring Coate Water and the local fields and woods, observing wildlife and nature with an enquiring eye. The area around his home at Coate has been known for years as “Jefferies Land”. It has become a place of pilgrimage for generations of readers. Jefferies had a great exhilaration for life. His unique expression of his relationship to nature has won him a secure place in the hearts of imaginative people. He has been described as a “many sided genius”. Historians cite him as an authority on agriculture and rural life in Victorian England. Major studies of mysticism have anthologised his work and discussed his ideas. He wrote one of the great novels for boys, as well as several highly original novels for adult readers. He is recognised as one of the greatest nature writers in the language and he topped a Guardian 2005 poll for favourite country writers. [2]pictures removed [3] Copy of the English Heritage listing dated 10 November 2006 SU 18 SE 4/57 2.10.51 SWINDON MARLBOROUGH ROAD Coate Richard Jefferies Museum II A C17 farmhouse with an adjoining early C19 house, now used as a museum. EXTERIOR: The C17 house is built of limestone rubble with a thatched roof and brick gable stack. The low, one storey building, with attic above, has a two-bay east front with a central entrance porch (added later) and an early C19, slate cat slide extension to the south and west ends. The early C19 farmhouse is attached to its west. It is a three storey building constructed of Flemish bond brickwork with a slate roof, with brick chimney stacks at both gable ends. The north front has three bays with an entrance left of centre comprising a six-panelled door with splayed stone lintel, flanked to the left by a hipped bay window with twenty-pane sashes and to the right by a three-light leaded timber window with a splayed stone lintel. Above the entrance on first floor level is a two-light leaded timber window flanked on either side by three-light leaded windows, all with splayed stone lintels. Above the latter at attic level are two smaller three-light leaded timber windows. The rear of the house to the south has scattered fenestration, and the west gable end has two-light timber windows to the right on first floor and attic level. INTERIOR: The C17 farmhouse has been significantly altered and restored in the C19 and C20. The early C19 house has panelled window reveals on ground and first floor levels. There is a contemporary inlaid slate fireplace on ground floor level and In the first floor bed room a timber fire surround with grate and a built-in six-panelled wardrobe. SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: The garden, orchard and farmyard at the Richard Jefferies Museum, enclosed by a stone wall along Marlborough Road (moved and rebuilt in the mid C20), contain a series of outbuildings and structures dating from the C19 some incorporating earlier fabric possibly dating from the C17 or C18, including a dairy (re-roofed in the mid C20), a barn with a stable (and hayloft above), a pigsty, a workshop, a garden bothy, a ha ha and a boundary stone (the latter was moved from elsewhere on the former estate). HISTORY: The farmstead, originating from the C17 and formerly known as Coate Farm, is the birthplace of the nature writer Richard Jefferies (1848-1887)and which is thought to have formed the main inspiration for his books. In the mid C20 it became the Richard Jefferies Museum. SUMMARY OF IMPORTANCE: The Richard Jefferies Museum is a C17 farmhouse with an adjoining early C19 house and associated outbuildings and structures, forming an interesting historic farmstead. The various buildings show how this farmstead evolved over time, and it is also an interesting surviving example of a group of vernacular buildings on the outskirts of Swindon. Additionally, the farmstead is the birthplace of the nature writer Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), and together with its surrounding landscape, in particular the Coate Water Reservoir, it formed the main inspiration for Jefferies books, including Bevis and Amaryllis at the Fair. SOURCES: M Daniel, 'Return to Jefferies' Country' in Country Life, 12 December 1974; B Cherry and N Pevsner, The Buildings of England (1985 2nd edn), p 516; J Chandler, Coate and Richard Jefferies (2005); 1st edition Ordnance Survey, surveyed 1878, published 1882; P.G. Herring Jefferies Farm, Coate, Wilts, a plan of the farmstead by Beauchamp (1923). Dated:- 10th November 2006 Signed by authority of the Secretary of State ELAINE PEARCE Department for Culture, Media and Sport

Monday, September 04, 2006

Jefferies' tree at Coate Water immortalised by plaque

Jefferies' tree at Coate Water immortalised by plaque 


 A new wooden plaque will be unveiled at Coate Water at 12 noon on Sunday 10th September, as part of the Heritage Day celebrations, to commemorate an oak tree that was immortalised by Richard Jefferies in his boys' adventure story, Bevis [1] first published in 1882. The 'Council Oak', as Jefferies described it, is an ancient tree growing alongside the eastern shore of Coate Water lake near the children's sand-pit. It is a place of pilgrimage for devotees of Jefferies' writing. Richard Jefferies, born in 1848, was raised at Jefferies Farm - now a Museum - some 500 metres from the tree. Bevis reflects Jefferies' own childhood adventures around Coate. In the book, the tree was the meeting place for local boys to plan their council of war that led to their mock battle in the nearby field, on Day House farm, named the 'Battlefield of Pharsalia'. The tree was chosen because "it was known by everyone. It grew all alone in the meadow, and far from any path, so that they could talk as they liked". Coate Water was called the 'New Sea' by Bevis. The tree's position was marked on maps published in various editions of the book. Around 1990, this magnificent oak tree suffered from a natural and rare condition known as 'limb drop' whereby it lost its crown. Another victim of age was the wooden plaque erected next to the tree made by Cyril Wright, a long-standing secretary of the Richard Jefferies Society. The new plaque was made by students at Dorcan Technical College under the supervision of teacher, Ivan Kirk. The school has added a dedication to teacher, John Venables, who was instrumental in getting the plaque accepted as a project. His sudden death this year came as a shock to all. Ray Morse, Vice-chairman of the Richard Jefferies Society, said: "John Venables was energetic and full of enthusiasm to help when I asked if his students might make a new plaque for the tree. The 'Council Oak' is part of our literary heritage. The new memorial plate not only acts as a marker but celebrates the passing of a great local writer as well as friends old and new". John Price, the Chairman of the Richard Jefferies Society, will welcome friends of Richard Jefferies and Coate Water to the unveiling ceremony at 12 noon on Sunday and read a relevant extract from Bevis. The Jefferies Museum will be open later from 2-5pm. 

 - ENDS - 

***** Editor's notes: [1] BEVIS: CHAPTER XIV - THE COUNCIL OF WAR opens: "I say!" ''Battleaxes - '' "St. George is right 'Hold your tongue." 'Pikes twenty feet long." 'Marching two and two." 'Do stop." 'I shall be general." 'That you won't." 'Romans had shields." 'Battleaxes are best." 'Knobs with spikes." 'I say - I say!" 'You're a donkey!" 'They had flags - " 'And drums." 'I've got a flute." 'You!" 'Yes, me." 'Hi!" "Tom." "If you hit me, I'll hit you." "Now." "Don't." "Be quiet." "Go on." "Let's begin." "I will" - buzz - buzz - buzz ! Phil, Tom, Ted, Jim, Frank, Walter, Bill, "Charl," Val, Bob, Cecil, Sam,Fred, George, Harry, Michael, Jack, Andrew, Luke, and half a dozen more were talking all together, shouting across each other, occasionally fighting, wrestling, and rolling over on the sward under an oak. There were two up in the tree, bellowing their views from above, and little Charlie ("Charl") was astride of a bough which he had got hold of, swinging up and down, and yelling like the rest. Some stood by the edge of the water, for the oak was within a few yards of the New Sea, and alternately made ducks and drakes, and turned to contradict their friends. On higher ground beyond, a herd of cows grazed in perfect peace, while the swallows threaded a maze in and out between them, but just above the grass. The New Sea was calm and smooth as glass, the sun shone in a cloudless sky, so that the shadow of the oak was pleasant; but the swallows had come down from the upper air, and Bevis, as he stood a little apart listening in an abstracted manner to the uproar, watched them swiftly gliding in and out. He had convened a council of all those who wanted to join the war in the fields, because it seemed best to keep the matter secret, which could not be done if they came to the house, else perhaps the battle would be interfered with. This oak was chosen as it was known to everyone. It grew all alone in the meadow, and far from any path, so that they could talk as they liked."

September Nature Notes

September Nature Notes 

Extracts from Wild Life in a Southern County related to the orchards at Wick House [Jefferies' Farm]. 

"Be careful how you pick up a ripe apple, all glowing orange, from the grass in the orchard ; roll it over with your foot first, or you may chance to find that you have got a handful of wasps. They eat away the interior of the fruit, leaving little but the rind, and this very hollowness causes the rind to assume richer tints and a more tempting appearance. Speckled apples on the tree, whether pecked by a blackbird, eaten by wasps or ants, always ripen fastest, and if you do not mind cutting out that portion, are the best. Such a fallen apple, when hollowed out within, is a veritable torpedo if incautiously handled. Wasps are incurable drunkards. If they find something sweet and tempting they stick to it, and swill till they fall senseless to the ground. They are then most dangerous, because unseen and unheard ; and one may put one's hand on them in ignorance of their whereabouts. 

----- Dusky Blenheim oranges, with a gleam of gold under the rind ; a warmer tint of yellow on the pippins. Here streaks of red, here a tawny hue. Yonder a load of great russets; nearby heavy pears bending the strong branches; round black damsons; luscious egg-plums hanging their yellow ovals overhead; bullace, not yet ripe, but presently sweetly piquant. On the walnut trees bunches of round green balls-note those that show a dark spot or streak, and gently tap them with the tip of the tall slender pole placed there for the purpose. Down they come glancing from bough to bough, and, striking the hard turf, the thick green rind splits asunder, and the walnut itself rebounds upwards. Those who buy walnuts have no idea of the fine taste of the fruit thus gathered direct from the tree, when the kernel, though so curiously convoluted, slips its pale yellow skin easily and is so wondrously white. Surely it is an error to banish the orchard and the fruit-garden from the pleasure-grounds of modern houses, strictly relegating them to the rear, as if something to be ashamed of."

Monday, August 07, 2006


AUGUST NATURE NOTES are taken from 'A Summer Evening'. First published in 1881 in the Pall Mall Gazette, later in Chronicles of the Hedges The sunlight falling on the tree trunks pales as it comes from the westward, having lost the glare of the south. At noon the trunks were in shadow with the sun straight over, and the appearance of the beams upon the stems as he declines marks the coming of the evening. The shrill note Pied wagtail echoes from the building, and it is noticed because the other birds are silent while the sun is going down. Long hours of heat seem to have burned the blue out of the sky; it pales as the light goes, and the faintest white haze mingles with it as if an invisible gossamer mist were spread over. In the deep shadow of the elms—a double shade from a double row—the horses are a little happier at last; but for hours yet their heads will nod, nod ceaselessly up and down, shaking off the torment of flies. At horse-hoe in the morning there seemed to be a green bush moving across the field between the rows of roots, for a bough was thrust into every crevice of the harness, and others were hung over or tied on, so that the horse was caparisoned with drooping branches. They withered and became a listless green in the sun before an acre was finished, but, swinging at every step, drove away the insects. With the first sunbeam the insects began, and will continue long after the last ray has departed. No files of rooks stream across the country as they would do in winter—they are late to return to their trees, and do so in scattered parties. The wood-pigeons, too, have not finished yet, and the sparrows are still in the corn; you can see where they have cleared out every ear in a corner by the white and chaffy appearance, while elsewhere the wheat is golden. The house-martins are still busy bringing mortar from the shore of the pond, where they drag their white legs over the moist earth, floundering and flutter­ing as they lose their balance. The swifts are screeching round the houses, or the church, so that the sky seems vacant, till, perhaps, a heron comes over, high up and slow as a cloud. If you put your hand on the top bar of a gate it is still warm, the mirage has disappeared, and does not quiver; but in walking through the fields now and then, a heated section of air is entered, much warmer than the rest of the atmosphere. Where the earth lies fallow the dry clods take a browner tint. A sudden movement in the wheat close by shows where a hare has already left his form well concealed by the tall stalks, but a pheasant in the barley may crouch and lie still. You may step right in among a covey of partridge chicks, if you come quickly and noiselessly over the gate without a dog. They are in the long grass between the wheat and the hedge, where there are ant hills; their first instinct is to 'quat' and before they can run you are in the middle of them. The strongest perhaps fly and drop twenty yards out in the wheat, the others ' cheep ' and run in among the stalks, tumbling in their eagerness over the clods. If you wished you might put a broad-brimmed hat over and cap­ture one as children do butterflies. They are the prettiest little things, and he must be hard-hearted who would not handle a partridge chick tenderly. Any little stream greatly puzzles them if they cannot fly. A burdock leaf would hide the whole covey. By now every tall bunch of grass casts a shadow, and a softer hue steals forth over the dry corn. What is the name of the colour of the barley? For in and among the rest there is a flicker of red fire which cannot be fixed, disappearing if looked for steadily. But as you first glance at it there seems sparks of redness here and there, as if the colour at those places came to a point. In reality there is no such redness, nor could you find it in a whole field ; the barley is broadly yellow, faintly green, dashed a little with orange, the most difficult of hues to give an idea of, and only seen in perfection when long weeks of fierce sunshine (as this season) have left an essence of the sunlight on it. The oats before they whiten have a delicate green of their own, less pronounced than eau de Nil, pearly yet not pearl grey. Out from the hedges the shadow comes, and far in front of the shadow a penumbra of lesser light; soft still hues settle on the surface. The disc of the sun goes down yellow, and not so bright but that it can be looked at; the sky at the horizon is a faint yellow — a pale glow that seems weary and worn out with heat. Some might say so pale a sunset meant rain. But look to the east. There the atmosphere thickens to a dull red, like a heated tile; and so long as that dull red glow comes evening after evening the wheat will stand in earth as hard as a kiln could make it. If the hills seem near and clearly defined it is because the air has been burned with sunlight, and because the slopes are distinct with squares of yellow corn. Overhead the faint whitish mist disappears and leaves a purple sky; beneath, over the broad fields, the shadows have gone. Instead of bright light and dark contrast, there is a light everywhere, soft and quiet, as if it came through the dome of purple. Grasshoppers still sing on the short turf where the worn ground shows white and dry through the thin blades. The ants have not yet finished, nor the bees; as they go home the moths come forth. On a bare bough a shrike is still intent on every passing insect, and calls ceaselessly to her young perched in the bushes. From the fern a nightjar rises and starts upon his uncertain course like a larger swallow of the night. There are thrushes in the aftermath, and the brownish spots farther away which move now and then are rabbits. Flocks of rooks are stationary on the ground by the corn, but outside it; at the brook the water-rats feed, and the moorhens, birds both of day and night; and the yellow-hammer sings till the first beetle hums over the hedge. The yellow glow in the west sinks away, leaving only a whiter light there to distinguish the place of sun-setting. Distant corners of fields grow dusky, and in the copse under the trees there are passages which look dark a short way off, though not so when actually beneath the boughs. The little green that is yet left in any of the later corn or found along the edges among the weeds and wild flowers comes up, as it were, to the surface. So, too, with the white tints, the whiteness of the oats, of the driest and ripest of the wheat-stalks, of the white flowers and dusty sward, of the earth itself whitened by heat. White and green tone everything, and the gold is deadened, but the purple overhead is still clearer and seems higher. The hares are happy now, and may be seen wherever the second crop of clover is not too tall to hide them, or met with stealing along the quiet lanes where the nuts are already enlarging upon the hazel. A bat appears and flies to and fro at a great height; the bats do not seem to hawk so much in the summer as in spring, or perhaps not till late—at least, they are not so conspicuous. The swallows are still on the wing, and even yet it is some time before the first star. Not much effort is made by the birds to find a roosting-place. The barn and the bushes by it, an old fir tree grown about with ivy, from which long straws depending betray a nest—these suffice the sparrows. Almost the first bough answers, as they are all clothed with foliage. Those birds that have a second brood choose a branch adjacent to the nest: if not, wherever the deepening dusk finds them, there is sure to be a bush or tree. Now and again, as the beetles hum more often, a faint air comes over the corn—cool, but not chilly—scarce enough breeze to rustle the wheat-ears. Stand still while it lasts; it is too delicious to miss the least portion of, and it will only blow a minute. A star parts the purple veil at last. The purple is less now and the blue more; and after the first the stars come forth, each with a shorter interval between. There is no haze, and southwards where the horizon is darkest the stars shine low down as it were to the surface of the wheat. A white owl passes under the trees, and the chirruping of the crickets on the mounds sounds in the still­ness across the fields. A rook, or perhaps a night-wandering crow, flits by, just clearing the hedge towards the copse. The nightjar floats again, rising to the top of the oak yonder. All the breadth of the white corn is visible, the hedge on the other side, the elms farther still, a rolling slope of corn beyond that, and the distant hills. But yet, though it seems so light and clear, if the eye endeavours to single out an object it fails to define it. Whether there may or may not be someone behind the elm yonder, whether someone may or may not be stealthily moving along the hedge, is not certain, and the longer the gaze is fixed the more shadowy the object looks. It is a shadow: it is not a shadow: a horse perhaps? No, nothing; merely a spot where a projecting bush deepens the dusk. All things are visible, and yet invisible; they have no outline, no definition. The stars thicken, and with them comes a sense of intense rest. The light is not gone, but only enough left to incline the thoughts to quiet; there is no darkness, but that shadow which soothes and inclines to dream. The heated earth cools, and there is a freshness in the atmosphere. The hot trees, loaded with heavy foliage hi the noontide sun, seem to lift themselves again. Rest everywhere, rest and stillness; the calmest silence, but not Weariness or slumber—the reverse. The windows of the mind, the eyes open wider, the pupils enlarging; the mind, no more oppressed, ranges afar. The blood which was heated like the earth, flows stronger, and the hot hands are cool, and the feverish fingers no longer repel each other as they touch. The surface of the skin acts again, and the faint relaxed feeling departs. There is new life, new vigour, and the power to enjoy. How easy it is now to understand how to the nomad tribes of old, burned with Eastern suns, the light was to them as darkness is to us, the symbol of evil; how they looked on the sun as an enemy, and welcomed, lauded, and adored the night as their greatest good! The beautiful night with it; mystery and glory, and the thoughts that cannot be written down any more than you can write down what a star is— the beautiful life-renewing Night! Let us remain without doors.

Monday, July 10, 2006


The extract selected for July's nature notes comes from THE JULY GRASS first published on 24 July 1886 in the Pall Mall Gazette and later in Field and Hedgerow - a collection of Jefferies' essays published after his death. You need to know that the "July fly" described by Jefferies is the pretty six-spotted burnett moth [a day-flying moth] and the birdsfoot "lotus" is birdsfoot trefoil that he would have seen in the meadows at Coate. 

The July Grass A July fly went sideways over the long grass. His wings made a burr about him like a net, beating so fast they wrapped him round with a cloud. Every now and then, as he flew over the trees of grass, a taller one than common stopped him, and there he clung, and the eye had time to see the scarlet spots - the loveliest colour - on his wings. The wind swung the bennet and loosened his hold, and away he went again over the grasses. I wonder whether it is a joy to have bright scarlet spots, and to be clad in the purple and gold of life; is the colour felt by the creature that wears it? The scarlet-dotted fly knows nothing of the names of the grasses that grow here, and thinking of him I have decided not to learn any more of their names either. I have picked a handful this morning of which I know nothing. I will sit here on the turf and the scarlet-dotted flies shall pass over me, as if I too were but a grass. Here by me is a praying-rug, just wide enough to kneel on, of the richest gold interwoven with crimson. It is indeed too beautiful to kneel on, for the life in these golden flowers must not be broken down even for that purpose. It is so common, the bird's-foot lotus, it grows everywhere; yet if I had purposely searched for days I should not have found a plot like this, so rich, so golden, so glowing with sunshine. You might pass it by in one stride, yet it is worthy to be thought of for a week and remembered for a year. Slender grasses, branched round about with slenderer boughs, each tipped with pollen and rising in tiers cone-shaped - too delicate to grow tall -cluster at the base of the mound. They dare not grow tall or the wind would snap them. A great grass, stout and thick, rises three feet by the hedge, with a head another foot nearly, very green and strong and bold, lifting itself right up to you; you must say, 'What a fine grass!' Grasses whose awns succeed each other alternately; grasses whose tops seem flattened; others drooping over the shorter blades beneath; some that you can only find by parting the heavier growth around them; thousands and thousands. I wish I could do something more than gaze at all this scarlet and gold and crimson and green, something more than see it, not exactly to drink it or inhale it, but in some way to make it part of me that I might live it.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Liddington Plaque and Viewing Table

Liddington Plaque and Viewing Table. On June 24th around 50 people attended an event at Liddington Hill when a memorial plaque and direction marker was unveiled by Lord Joffe. The weather was perfect, the views superb and a skylark sang overhead to add to the atmosphere of the occasion. Lady Treitel expressed thanks on behalf of the Richard Jefferies Society and read an appropriate passage from 'The Story of my Heart'. The erection of the viewing table and plaques was a millennium project planned by Liddington Parish Council who also wanted to replace the memorial plaque to Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams that had been placed on the trig point by JB Jones [Swindon schoolmaster and scholar] some 70 years ago. This plaque disappeared a few years ago and it was assumed that vandals had pulled it down. We were pleasantly surprised to learn today that the old plaque had been found in a field and had been taken to the Bath Road Museum. As this is the first we had heard about the recovery of the plaque and, as we can see no value in placing the plaque at Bath Road Museum, we have asked for it back so that it might have place of honour at the Jefferies Museum. Photo: courtesy Gordon Wilson, Liddington Parish Council.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Bird Notes in June [published in Field and Farm

  By the side of the brook is a great lime. Its leaves unfold to the sun. On its flowers the bees are lurking. Near the path on the other side of the stream is a row of pine-trees, their delicate tufted plumes of an enchanting green. In the deep wood beyond no bird voices stir the velvet-footed silence. There is no bird music amid the pines and the stems of the trees rise tall and straight towards the sun. The floor of the wood bears a thick carpet of pine needles and there is no undergrowth. In this hush of silence one's very footsteps as we tread softly, seem too loud. Not far away in the beech copse the wood pigeons are busy, their incessant voices seem everywhere. Elms and alders grow near the stream, some graceful branches stretch over the water. A wren has its nest in an alder and a magpie nests in a lofty elm. As one pauses by the stream to listen to the current lapsing by, [how delightful is the sound!] reed-sparrows may be seen in the flags and if you stay long enough and watch quietly you may see a water ouzel. The kingfisher haunts the pool beyond the bend and flies like an arrow in a flash of colour. Now and then hovering above, a heron may be seen in the blue air. The warblers are singing loudly. The cries and whistlings come thick and fast. The ground is covered with fallen blossom, for this is the time of the June rose. Swallows dart here and there, hawking over the water. A jay flies from a tree and utters its discordant note. The rooks over the hedge are busy in the cornfield among the green corn. On the rocks which rise in the middle of the stream where it broadens out, clings saxifrage; campions, wild parsley, and water avens are in a crowd and iris, more clearly seen, as it rises above the other plants. The reeds sway to the lapping of the wavelets. As we watch, half abstracted and half dreaming in the bright June sunlight, small trout rise and a water hen may be seen in the reeds, but is soon out of sight, where the tall grasses rise. Listen! amid the sweet twisted babel of bird voices is one above all, it is the note of the chaffinch, a short song, but sweet and often mellow. The chaffinch is perhaps the most common of all our birds. Its nest, wonderfully and compactly constructed, is a work of art. It is most cleverly hidden and almost impossible to detect, so great is its resemblance to the trunk against which it is placed on the bough. Now the rain begins to fall. Slowly at first, drop after drop, then more swiftly and in greater volume until there is a sharp shower for a few minutes. We shelter under the thick leafy boughs on the margin of the wood, inhaling the varied sweet scents which the rain has stirred up. A hedgehog, intent and self-absorbed, is jogging along the green ride. The clouds pass swiftly, the rain ceases and we go on our way; leaning over a gate near the Home Farm, we pause for a moment to look at the bluebell wood, the myriad blue flowers cover the ground here like a carpet, so thick are they. It is a delectable sight and lingers on in the mind long after it is seen no more. The sunshine has returned and in the golden light the bluebells seem like flames rising from the woodland soil. In the pause after the rain there comes an even louder bird chorus, each bird seems singing its loudest and sweetest, the voices of the thrush and the blackbird rise and fall amid the rush of sound. It is almost like a great hymn of gratitude for the benediction of the light. Let us linger out of doors in the sweet air of June until the light begins to fade from the sky and the stars appear. Every moment in this most delightful of all the months, snatched from the passing of inevitable time, is to be enjoyed and cherished, stored in the memory when darker days return.

Monday, May 22, 2006



 Richard Jefferies' mother gave this christening robe to a Coate resident, presumably after her own children had been christened in it. 

  Henry Williamson [author of Tarka the Otter], a Jefferies’ devotee, visited Coate in 1925 and 1937. He described Mrs Bathe as a ‘straight seeing’ little woman who lived in a ‘tarred cot’ opposite Coate Farm. Mrs Bathe lived to 93 years of age and died in 1948. She had 16 children all of whom were christened wearing the Jefferies' cloak. It was passed to Mrs Bathe's daughter (Mrs Whitbread of Newport Street) who was the youngest child. Mrs Whitbread’s two children (Arthur and Norman) were also christened in it and the robe was then gifted to the Richard Jefferies Society in the 1950s. It was shown at a meeting and then disappeared. It was discovered in May 2006 that the robe had been stored at Bath Road Museum and wrongly attributed to Alfred Williams. The scarlet cloak was returned to the Jefferies’ Museum. On learning about the robe Norman’s son, Ian, visited the Museum on 7 May 2006. Fascinated by the story he questioned the name ‘Bathe’ as his grandmother’s name was Goddard [not related to the land-owners]. So, did Henry Williamson get the name wrong or did Mrs Bathe marry again? And, did the colour of the cloak inspire The Scarlet Shawl?

Thursday, May 04, 2006



 This month's extract is taken from the HOURS OF SPRING. It was first published in May 1886 in Longman’s Magazine and later in the Field and Hedgerow collection. By this time Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was crippled with tuberculosis - the year before his death - and was no longer able to walk outside and chronicle the comings and goings of creatures and plants. Jefferies continues to marvel at nature and in this extract it is bird song that he found so sweet. 

  It is sweet on awaking in the early morn to listen to the small bird singing on the tree. No sound of voice or flute is like the bird's song; there is something in it distinct and separate from all other notes. ..The bird upon the tree utters the meaning of the wind--a voice of the grass and wild flower, words of the green leaf; they speak through that slender tone. Sweetness of dew and rifts of sunshine, the dark hawthorn touched with breadths of open bud, the odour of the air, the colour of the daffodil--all that is delicious and beloved of spring-time are expressed in his song. Genius is nature, and his lay, like the sap in the bough from which he sings, rises without thought. Nor is it necessary that it should be a song; a few short notes in the sharp spring morning are sufficient to stir the heart. But yesterday the least of them all came to a bough by my window, and in his call I heard the sweet-briar wind rushing over the young grass. Refulgent fall the golden rays of the sun; a minute only, the clouds cover him and the hedge is dark. The bloom of the gorse is shut like a book; but it is there--a few hours of warmth and the covers will fall open. The meadow is bare, but in a little while the heart-shaped celandine leaves will come in their accustomed place. On the pollard willows the long wands are yellow-ruddy in the passing gleam of sunshine, the first colour of spring appears in their bark. The delicious wind rushes among them and they bow and rise; it touches the top of the dark pine that looks in the sun the same now as in summer; it lifts and swings the arching trail of bramble; it dries and crumbles the earth in its fingers; the hedge-sparrow's feathers are fluttered as he sings on the bush. The green hawthorn buds prophesy on the hedge; the reed pushes up in the moist earth like a spear thrust through a shield; the eggs of the starling are laid in the knot-hole of the pollard elm--common eggs, but within each a speck that is not to be found in the cut diamond of two hundred carats--the dot of protoplasm, the atom of life. There was one row of pollards where they always began laying first. With a big stick in his beak the rook is blown aside like a loose feather in the wind; he knows his building-time from the fathers of his house--hereditary knowledge handed down in settled course: but the stray things of the hedge, how do they know? The great blackbird has planted his nest by the ash-stole, open to every one's view, without a bough to conceal it and not a leaf on the ash--nothing but the moss on the lower end of the branches. He does not seek cunningly for concealment. I think of the drift of time, and I see the apple bloom coming and the blue veronica in the grass. .. The larks sang at last high up against the grey cloud over the frost-bound earth. They could not wait longer; love was strong in their little hearts--stronger than the winter. After a while the hedge-sparrows, too, began to sing on the top of the gorse-hedge about the garden. By-and-by a chaffinch boldly raised his voice, ending with the old story, 'Sweet, will you, will you kiss--me--dear?' Then there came a hoar-frost, and the earth, which had been black, became white, as its evaporated vapours began to gather and drops of rain to fall. Even then the obstinate weather refused to quite yield, wrapping its cloak, as it were, around it in bitter enmity. But in a day or two white clouds lit up with sunshine appeared drifting over from the southward, and that was the end. ..Five dull yellow spots on the hedge--gorse bloom--that had remained unchanged for so many weeks, took a fresh colour and became golden. By the constant passing of the waggons and carts along the road that had been so silent it was evident that the busy time of spring was here. There would be rough weather, doubtless, now and again, but it would not again be winter.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

April Nature Notes


 This month's nature notes are taken from SOME APRIL INSECTS.  It was first published on 19th April 1886 in the St James Gazette and later in Field and Hedgerow. The essay is reproduced in its entirety. 

  A black humble-bee came to the white hyacinths in the garden on the sunny April morning when the yellow tulip opened, and as she alighted on the flower there hovered a few inches in the rear an eager attendant, not quite so large, more grey, and hovering with the shrillest vibration close at hand. The black bee went round the other side of a bunch of hyacinths, and was hidden in the bell of a purple one. At thus temporarily losing sight of her, the follower, one might say, flew into a state of extreme excitement, and spun round and round in the air till he caught sight of her again and resumed his steady hovering. Then she went to the next bunch of hyacinths; he followed her, when, with a furious, shrill cry of swiftly beating wings, a second lover darted down, and then the two followed the lady in black velvet--buzz, buzz, buzz, pointing like hounds stationary in the air--buzz, buzz--while she without a moment's thought of them worked at the honey. By-and-by one rushed at her--a too eager caress, for she lost her balance and fell out of the flower on to the ground. Up she got and pursued him for a few angry circles, and then settled to work again. Presently the rivals darted at each other and whirled about, and in the midst of the battle off went the lady in velvet to another part of the garden, and the combatants immediately rushed after her. Every morning that the tulip opened its great yellow bell, these black humble-bees came, almost always followed by one lover, sometimes, as on the first occasion, by two. A bright row of polyanthus and oxlips seemed to be the haunt of the male bees. There they waited, some on the leaves and some on the dry clods heated by the sun, in ambush till a dark lady should come. The yellow tulip was a perfect weather-meter; if there was the least bit of harshness in the air, the least relic of the east wind, it remained folded. Sunshine alone was not sufficient to tempt it, but the instant there was any softness in the atmosphere open came the bell, and as if by a magic key all the bees and humble-bees of the place were unlocked, and forth they came with joyous note--not to visit the tulip, which is said to be a fatal cup of poison to them. Any one delicate would do well to have a few such flowers in spring under observation, and to go out of doors or stop in according to their indications. I think there were four species of wild bee at these early flowers, including the great bombus and the small prosopis with orange-yellow head. It is difficult to scientifically identify small insects hastily flitting without capturing them, which I object to doing, for I dislike to interfere with their harmless liberty. They have all been named and classified, and I consider it a great cruelty to destroy them again without special purpose. The pleasure is to see them alive and busy with their works, and not to keep them in a cabinet. These wild bees, particularly the smaller ones, greatly resented my watching them, just the same as birds do. If I walked by they took no heed; if I stopped or stooped to get a better view they were off instantly. Without doubt they see you, and have some idea of the meaning of your various motions. The wild bees are a constant source of interest, much more so than the hive bee, which is so extremely regular in its ways. With an explosion almost like a little bomb shot out of a flower; with an immense hum, almost startling, boom! the great bombus hurls himself up in the air from under foot; well named--boom--bombus. Is it correct or is it only a generalisation, that insects like ants and hive bees, who live in great and well-organised societies, are more free from the attacks of parasites than the comparatively solitary wild bees? Ants are, indeed, troubled with some parasites, but these do not seem to multiply very greatly, and do not seriously injure the populousness of the nest. They have enemies which seize them, but an enemy is not a parasite. On the other hand, too, they have mastered a variety of insects, and use them for their delectation and profit. Hive bees are likewise fairly free from parasites, unless, indeed, their so-called dysentery is caused by some minute microbe. These epidemics, however, are rare. Take it altogether, the hive bee appears comparatively free of parasites. Enemies they have, but that is another matter. Have these highly civilised insects arrived in some manner at a solution of the parasite problem? Have they begun where human civilisation may be said to have ended, with a diligent study of parasitic life? All our scientific men are now earnestly engaged in the study of bacteria, microbes, mycelium, and yeast, infinitesimally minute fungi of every description, while meantime the bacillus is eating away the lives of a heavy percentage of our population. Ants live in communities which might be likened to a hundred Londons dotted about England, so are their nests in a meadow, or, still more striking, on a heath. Their immense crowds, the population of China to an acre, do not breed disease. Every ant out of that enormous multitude may calculate on a certain average duration of life, setting aside risks from battle, birds, and such enemies. Microbes are unlikely to destroy her. Now this is a very extraordinary circumstance. In some manner the ants have found out a way of accommodating themselves to the facts of their existence; they have fitted themselves in with nature and reached a species of millennium. Are they then more intelligent than man? We have certainly not succeeded in doing this yet; they are very far ahead of us. Are their eyes, divided into a thousand facets, a thousand times more powerful than our most powerful microscopes, and can they see spores, germs, microbes, or bacilli where our strongest lenses find nothing? I have some doubts as to whether ants are really shut out of many flowers by hairs pointing downwards in a fringe and similar contrivances. The ant has a singularly powerful pair of mandibles: put one between your shirt and skin and try; the nip you will get will astonish you. With these they can shear off the legs or even the head of another ant in battle. I cannot see, therefore, why, if they wished, they could not nip off this fringe of hairs, or even sever the stem of the plant. Evidently they do not wish, and possibly they have reasons for avoiding some plants and flowers, which besides honey may contain spores--just as they certainly contain certain larvae, which attach themselves to the bodies of bees. Possibly we may yet use the ants or some other clever insects to find out the origin of the fatal parasite which devours the consumptive. Some reason exists for imagining that this parasite has something to do with the flora, for phthisis ceases at a certain altitude, and it is very well known that the floras have a marked line of demarcation. Up to a certain height certain flowers will grow, but not beyond, just as if you had run a separating ditch round the mountain. With the flora the insects cease; whether the germ comes from the vegetation or from the insect that frequents the vegetation does not seem known. Still it would be worth while to make a careful examination of the plant and insect life just at the verge of the line of division. The bacillus may spring from a spore starting from a plant or starting from an insect. Most of England had an Alpine climate probably once, and some Alpine plants and animals have been stranded on the tops of our highest hills and remain there to this day. In those icy times English lungs were probably free of disease. Has formic acid ever been used for experiments on bacilli? It is the ant acid; they are full of it, and it is extracted and used for some purposes abroad. Perhaps its strong odour is repellent to parasites. To return: while the honey-bees live in comparative safety, the more or less solitary wild bees have a great struggle to repel various creatures that would eat them or their young, and, be as watchful as they may, all their efforts at nest-building are often rendered nugatory by the success of a parasite. So it is not worth while to catch them just for the purpose of identification, for they have enough enemies in the field without man and his heartless cabinets. The collector is the most terrible parasite of all. Let them go on with a happy hum, while the tulip opens in the sunshine.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006



 'Early in March' was first printed in the 'Standard' on 31 March 1879 and then incorporated into Hodge and his Masters in the Chapter entitled "Hodge's Field". 

  The labourer working all the year round in the open air cannot but note to some degree those changes in tree and plant which coincide with the variations of his daily employment. Early in March, as he walks along the southern side of the hedge, where the dead oak leaves still cumber the trailing ivy, he can scarcely avoid seeing that pointed tongues of green are pushing up. Some have widened into black-spotted leaves; some are notched like the many-barbed bone harpoons of savage races. The hardy docks are showing, and the young nettles have risen up. Slowly the dark and grey hues of winter are yielding to the lively tints of spring. The blackthorn has white buds on its lesser branches, and the warm rays of the sun have drawn forth the buds on one favoured hawthorn in a sheltered nook, so that the green of the coming leaf is visible. Bramble bushes still retain their forlorn, shrivelled foliage; the hardy all but evergreen leaves can stand cold, but when biting winds from the north and east blow for weeks together even these curl at the edge and die. The remarkable power of wind upon leaves is sometimes seen in May, when a strong gale, even from the west, will so beat and batter the tender horse-chestnut sprays that they bruise and blacken. The slow plough traverses the earth, and the white dust rises from the road and drifts into the field. In winter the distant copse seemed black; now it appears of a dull reddish brown from the innumerable catkins and buds. The delicate sprays of the birch are fringed with them, the aspen has a load of brown, there are green catkins on the bare hazel boughs, and the willows have white 'pussy-cats.' The horse-chestnut buds--the hue of dark varnish--have enlarged, and stick to the finger if touched; some are so swollen as to nearly burst and let the green appear. Already it is becoming more difficult to look right through the copse. In winter the light could be seen on the other side; now catkin, bud, and opening leaf have thickened and check the view. The same effect was produced not long since by the rime on the branches in the frosty mornings; while each smallest twig was thus lined with crystal it was not possible to see through. Tangled weeds float down the brook, catching against projecting branches that dip into the stream, or slowly rotating and carried apparently up the current by the eddy and back-water behind the bridge. In the pond the frogs have congregated in great numbers; their constant 'croo-croo' is audible at some distance. The meadows, so long bound by frost and covered with snow, are slowly losing their wan aspect, and assuming a warmer green as the young blades of grass come upwards. Where the plough or harrow has passed over the clods they quickly change from the rich brown of fresh-turned soil to a whiter colour, the dryness of the atmosphere immediately dissipating the moisture in the earth. So, examine what you will, from the clod to the tiniest branch, the hedge, the mound, the water--everywhere a step forward has been taken. The difference in a particular case may be minute; but it is there, and together these faint indications show how closely spring is approaching. As the sun rises the chaffinch utters his bold challenge on the tree; the notes are so rapid that they seem to come all at once. Welcome, indeed, is the song of the first finch. Sparrows are busy in the garden--the hens are by far the most numerous now, half a dozen together perch on the bushes. One suddenly darts forth and seizes a black insect as it flies in the sunshine. The bee, too, is abroad, and once now and then a yellow butterfly. From the copse on the warmer days comes occasionally the deep hollow bass of the wood pigeon. On the very topmost branch of an elm a magpie has perched; now he looks this way, and then turns that, bowing in the oddest manner, and jerking his long tail up and down. Then two of them flutter across the field--feebly, as if they had barely strength to reach the trees in the opposite hedge. Extending their wings they float slowly, and every now and then the body undulates along its entire length. Rooks are building--they fly and feed now in pairs; the rookery is alive with them. To the steeple the jackdaws have returned and fly round and round; now one holds his wings rigid and slides down at an angle of sixty degrees at a breakneck pace, as if about to dash himself in fragments on the garden beneath. Sometimes there come a few days which are like summer. There is an almost cloudless sky, a gentle warm breeze, and a bright sun filling the fields with a glow of light. The air, though soft and genial, is dry, and perhaps it is this quality which gives so peculiar a definition to hedge, tree, and hill. A firm, almost hard, outline brings copse and wood into clear relief; the distance across the broadest fields appears sensibly diminished. Such freedom from moisture has a deliciously exhilarating effect on those who breathe so pure an atmosphere. The winds of March differ, indeed, in a remarkable manner from, the gales of the early year, which, even when they blow from a mild quarter, compel one to keep in constant movement because of the aqueous vapour they carry. But the true March wind, though too boisterous to be exactly genial, causes a joyous sense of freshness, as if the very blood in the veins were refined and quickened upon inhaling it. There is a difference in its roar--the note is distinct from the harsh sound of the chilly winter blast. On the lonely highway at night, when other noises are silent, the March breeze rushes through the tall elms in a wild cadence. The white clouds hasten over, illuminated from behind by a moon approaching the full; every now and then a break shows a clear blue sky and a star shining. Now a loud roar resounds along the hedgerow like the deafening boom of the surge; it moderates, dies away, then an elm close by bends and sounds as the blast comes again. In another moment the note is caught up and repeated by a distant tree, and so one after another joins the song till the chorus reaches its highest pitch. Then it sinks again, and so continues with pauses and deep inspirations, for March is like a strong man drawing his breath full and long as he starts to run a race. The sky, too, like the earth, whose hedges, trees, and meadows are acquiring fresher colours, has now a more lovely aspect. At noon-day, if the clouds be absent, it is a rich azure; after sunset a ruddy glow appears almost all round the horizon, while the thrushes sing in the wood till the twilight declines. At night, when the moon does not rise till late, the heavens are brilliant with stars. In the east Arcturus is up; the Great Bear, the Lesser Bear, and Cassiopeia are ranged about the Pole. Procyon goes before the Dog; the noble constellation of Orion stretches broad across the sky; almost overhead lucent Capella looks down. Aries droops towards the west; the Bull follows with the red Aldebaran, and the Pleiades. Behind these, Castor and Pollux, and next the cloudlike, nebulous Cancer. Largest of all, great Sirius is flaming in the south, quivering with the ebb and flow of his light, sometimes with an emerald scintillation like a dewdrop on which a sunbeam glances.

Friday, February 03, 2006



First published in Good Words in Feb 1882 And in The Open Air by Richard Jefferies

 How happy the trees must be to hear the song of birds again in their branches! After the silence and the leaflessness, to have the birds back once more and to feel them busy at the nest-building; how glad to give them the moss and fibres and the crutch of the boughs to build in! Pleasant it is now to watch the sunlit clouds sailing onwards; it is like sitting by the sea. There is voyaging to and fro of birds; the strong woodpigeon goes over - a long course in the air, from hill to distant copse; a blackbird starts from an ash, and, now inclining this way and now that, traverses the meadows to the thick corner hedge; finches go by, and the air is full of larks that sing without ceasing. The touch of the wind, the moisture of the dew, the sun-stained raindrop, have in them the magic force of life - a marvellous something that was not there before.    The cawing of the rooks in February shows that the time is coming when their nests will be re-occupied. They resort to the trees, and perch above the old nests to indicate their rights; for in the rookery possession is the law, and not nine-tenths of it only. In the slow dull cold of winter even these noisy birds are quiet, and as the vast flocks pass over, night and morning, to and from the woods in which they roost, there is scarcely a sound. Through the mist their black wings advance in silence, the jackdaws with them are chilled into unwonted quiet, and unless you chance to look up the crowd may go over unnoticed. But so soon as the waters begin to make a sound in February, running in the ditches and splashing over stones, the rooks commence the speeches and conversations which will continue till late into the following autumn. 
     The general idea is that they pair in February, but there are some reasons for thinking that the rooks, in fact, choose their males at the end of the preceding summer. They are then in large flocks, and if only casually glanced at appear mixed together without any order or arrangement. They move on the ground and fly in the air so close, one beside the other, that at the first glance or so you cannot distinguish them apart. Yet if you should be lingering along the by-ways of the fields as the acorns fall, and the leaves come rustling down in the warm sunny autumn afternoons, and keep an observant eye upon the rooks in the trees, or on the fresh-turned furrows, they will be seen to act in couples. On the ground couples alight near each other, on the trees they perch near each other, and in the air fly side by side. Like soldiers each has his comrade. Wedged in the ranks every man looks like his fellow, and there seems no tie between them but a common discipline. Intimate acquaintance with barrack or camp life would show that every one had his friend. There is also the mess, or companionship of half a dozen, or dozen, or more, and something like this exists part of the year in the armies of the rooks. After the nest time is over they flock together, and each family of three or four flies in concert. Later on they apparently choose their own particular friends, that is the young birds do so. All through the winter after, say October, these pairs keep together, though lost in the general mass to the passing spectator. If you alarm them while feeding on the ground in winter, supposing you have not got a gun, they merely rise up to the nearest tree, and it may then be observed that they do this in pairs. One perches on a branch and a second comes to him. When February arrives, and they resort to the nests to look after or seize on the property there, they are in fact already paired, though the almanacs put down St. Valentine's day as the date of courtship. 
     There is very often a warm interval in February, sometimes a few days earlier and sometimes later, but as a rule it happens that a week or so of mild sunny weather occurs about this time. Released from the grip of the frost, the streams trickle forth from the fields and pour into the ditches, so that while walking along the footpath there is a murmur all around coming from the rush of water. The murmur of the poets is indeed louder in February than in the more pleasant days of summer, for then the growth of aquatic grasses checks the flow and stills it, whilst in February every stone, or flint, or lump of chalk divides the current and causes a vibration, With this murmur of water, and mild time, the rooks caw incessantly, and the birds at large essay to utter their welcome of the sun. The wet furrows reflect the rays so that the dark earth gleams, and in the slight mist that stays farther away the light pauses and fills the vapour with radiance. Through this luminous mist the larks race after each other twittering, and as they turn aside, swerving in their swift flight, their white breasts appear for a moment. As while standing by a pool the fishes came into sight, emerging as they swim round from the shadow of the deeper water, so the larks dart over the low edge, and through the mist, and pass before you, and are gone again. All at once one checks his pursuit, forgets the immediate object, and rises, singing as he soars. The notes fall from the air over the dark wet earth, over the dank grass, and broken withered fern of the hedge, and listening to them it seems for a moment spring. There is sunshine in the song; the lark and the light are one. He gives us a few minutes of summer in February days. In May he rises before as yet the dawn is come, and the sunrise flows down to us under through his notes. On his breast, high above the earth, the first rays fall as the rim of the sun edges up at the eastward hill. The lark and the light are as one, and wherever he glides over the wet furrows the glint of the sun goes with him. Anon alighting he runs between the lines of the green corn. In hot summer, when the open hillside is burned with bright light, the larks are then singing and soaring. Stepping up the hill laboriously, suddenly a lark starts into the light and pours forth a rain of unwearied notes overhead. With bright light, and sunshine, and sunrise, and blue skies the bird is so associated in the mind, that even to see him in the frosty days of winter, at least assures us that summer will certainly return. 
      Ought not winter, in allegorical designs, the rather to be represented with such things that might suggest hope than such as convey a cold and grim despair? The withered leaf, the snowflake, the hedging bill that cuts and destroys, why these? Why not rather the dear larks for one? They fly in flocks, and amid the white expanse of snow (in the south) their pleasant twitter or call is heard as they sweep along seeking some grassy spot cleared by the wind. The lark, the bird of the light, is there in the bitter short days. Put the lark then for winter, a sign of hope, a certainty of summer. Put, too, the sheathed bud, for if you search the hedge you will find the buds there, on tree and bush, carefully wrapped around with the case which protects them as a cloak. Put, too, the sharp needles of the green corn; let the wind clear it of snow a little way, and show that under cold clod and colder snow the green thing pushes up, knowing that summer must come. Nothing despairs but man. Set the sharp curve of the white new moon in the sky: she is white in true frost, and yellow a little if it is devising change. Set the new moon as something that symbols an increase. Set the shepherd's crook in a corner as a token that the flocks are already enlarged in number. The shepherd is the symbolic man of the hardest winter time. His work is never more important than then. Those that only roam the fields when they are pleasant in May, see the lambs at play in the meadow, and naturally think of lambs and May flowers. But the lamb was born in the adversity of snow. Or you might set the morning star, for it burns and burns and glitters in the winter dawn, and throws forth beams like those of metal consumed in oxygen. There is nought that I know by comparison with which I might indicate the glory of the morning star, while yet the dark night hides in the hollows. The lamb is born in the fold. The morning star glitters in the sky. The bud is alive in its sheath; the green corn under the snow; the lark twitters as he passes. Now these to me are the allegory of winter. 
    These mild hours in February check the hold which winter has been gaining, and as it were, tear his claws out of the earth, their prey. If it has not been so bitter previously, when this Gulf stream or current of warmer air enters the expanse it may bring forth a butterfly and tenderly woo the first violet into flower. But this depends on its having been only moderately cold before, and also upon the stratum, whether it is backward clay, or forward gravel and sand. Spring dates are quite different according to the locality, and when violets may be found in one district, in another there is hardly a woodbine-leaf out. The border line may be traced, and is occasionally so narrow, one may cross over it almost at a step. It would sometimes seem as if even the nut-tree bushes bore larger and finer nuts on the warmer soil, and that they ripened quicker. Any curious in the first of things, whether it be a leaf, or flower, or a bird, should bear this in mind, and not be discouraged because he hears some one else has already discovered or heard something. 
        A little note taken now at this bare time of the kind of earth may lead to an understanding of the district. It is plain where the plough has turned it, where the rabbits have burrowed and thrown it out, where a tree has been felled by the gales, by the brook where the bank is worn away, or by the sediment at the shallow places. Before the grass and weeds, and corn and flowers have hidden it, the character of the soil is evident at these natural sections without the aid of a spade. Going slowly along the footpath—indeed you cannot go fast in moist February—it is a good time to select the places and map them out where herbs and flowers will most likely come first. All the autumn lies prone on the ground. Dead dark leaves, some washed to their woody frames, short grey stalks, some few decayed hulls of hedge fruit, and among these the mars or stocks of the plants that do not die away, but lie as it were on the surface waiting. Here the strong teazle will presently stand high; here the ground-ivy will dot the mound with bluish-purple. But it will be necessary to walk slowly to find the ground-ivy flowers under the cover of the briers. These bushes will be a likely place for a blackbird's nest; this thick close hawthorn for a bullfinch; these bramble thickets with remnants of old nettle stalks will be frequented by the whitethroat after a while. The hedge is now but a lattice-work which will before long be hung with green. Now it can be seen through, and now is the time to arrange for future discovery. In May everything will be hidden, and unless the most promising places are selected beforehand, it will not be easy to search them out. The broad ditch will be arched over, the plants rising on the mound will meet the green boughs drooping, and all the vacancy will be filled. But having observed the spot in winter you can almost make certain of success in spring. 
      It is this previous knowledge which invests those who are always on the spot, those who work much in the fields or have the care of woods, with their apparent prescience. They lead the new comer to a hedge, or the corner of a copse, or a bend of the brook, announcing beforehand that they feel assured something will be found there; and so it is. This, too, is one reason why a fixed observer usually sees more than one who rambles a great deal and covers ten times the space. The fixed observer who hardly goes a mile from home is like the man who sits still by the edge of a crowd, and by-and-by his lost companion returns to him. To walk about in search of persons in a crowd is well known to be the worst way of recovering them. Sit still and they will often come by. In a far more certain manner this is the case with birds and animals. They all come back. During a twelvemonth probably every creature would pass over a given locality: every creature that is not confined to certain places. The whole army of the woods and hedges marches across a single farm in twelve months. A single tree—especially an old tree—is visited by four-fifths of the birds that ever perch in the course of that period. Every year, too, brings something fresh, and adds new visitors to the list. Even the wild sea birds are found inland, and some that scarce seem able to fly at all are cast far ashore by the gales. It is difficult to believe that one would not see more by extending the journey, but, in fact, experience proves that the longer a single locality is studied the more is found in it. But you should know the places in winter as well as in tempting summer, when song and shade and colour attract every one to the field. You should face the mire and slippery path. Nature yields nothing to the sybarite. The meadow glows with buttercups in spring, the hedges are green, the woods lovely; but these are not to be enjoyed in their full significance unless you have traversed the same places when bare, and have watched the slow fulfilment of the flowers. 
     The moist leaves that remain upon the mounds do not rustle, and the thrush moves among them unheard. The sunshine may bring out a rabbit, feeding along the slope of the mound, following the paths or runs. He picks his way, he does not like wet. Though out at night in the dewy grass of summer, in the rain-soaked grass of winter, and living all his life in the earth, often damp nearly to his burrows, no time, and no succession of generations can make him like wet. He endures it, but he picks his way round the dead fern and the decayed leaves. He sits in the bunches of long grass, but he does not like the drops of dew on it to touch him. Water lays his fur close, and mats it, instead of running off and leaving him sleek. As he hops a little way at a time on the mound he chooses his route almost as we pick ours in the mud and pools of February. By the shore of the ditch there still stand a few dry, dead dock stems, with some dry reddish-brown seed adhering. Some dry brown nettle stalks remain; some grey and broken thistles; some teazles leaning on the bushes. The power of winter has reached its utmost now, and can go no farther. These bines which still hang in the bushes are those of the greater bindweed, and will be used in a month or so by many birds as conveniently curved to fit about their nests. The stem of wild clematis, grey and bowed, could scarcely look more dead. Fibres are peeling from it, they come off at the touch of the fingers. The few brown feathers that perhaps still adhere where the flowers once were are stained and discoloured by the beating of the rain. It is not dead: it will flourish again ere long. It is the sturdiest of creepers, facing the ferocious winds of the hills, the tremendous rains that blow up from the sea, and bitter frost, if only it can get its roots into soil that suits it. In some places it takes the place of the hedge proper and becomes itself the hedge. Many of the trunks of the elms are swathed in minute green vegetation which has flourished in the winter, as the clematis will in in the summer. Of all, the brambles bear the wild works of winter best. Given only a little shelter, in the corner of the hedges or under trees and copses they retain green leaves till the buds burst again. The frosts tint them in autumn with crimson, but not all turn colour or fall. The brambles are the bowers of the birds; in these still leafy bowers they do the courting of the spring, and under the brambles the earliest arum, and cleaver, or avens, push up. Round about them the first white nettle flowers, not long now; latest too, in the autumn. The white nettle sometimes blooms so soon (always according to locality), and again so late, that there seems but a brief interval between, as if it flowered nearly all the year round. So the berries on the holly if let alone often stay till summer is in, and new berries begin to appear shortly afterwards. The ivy, too, bears its berries far into the summer. Perhaps if the country be taken at large there is never a time when there is not a flower of some kind out, in this or that warm southern nook. The sun never sets, nor do the flowers ever die. There is life always, even in the dry fir-cone that looks so brown and sapless.
    The path crosses the uplands where the lapwings stand on the parallel ridges of the ploughed field like a drilled company; if they rise they wheel as one, and in the twilight move across the fields in bands invisible as they sweep near the ground, but seen against the sky in rising over the trees and the hedges. There is a plantation of fir and ash on the slope, and a narrow wagon-way enters it, and seems to lose itself in the wood. Always approach this spot quietly, for whatever is in the wood is sure at some time or other to come to the open space of the track. Wood-pigeons, pheasants, squirrels, magpies, hares, everything feathered or furred, down to the mole, is sure to seek the open way. Butterflies flutter through the copse by it in summer, just as you or I might use the passage between the trees. Towards the evening the partridges may run through to join their friends before roost-time on the ground. Or you may see a covey there now and then, creeping slowly with humped backs, and at a distance not unlike hedgehogs in their motions. The spot therefore should be approached with care; if it is only a thrush out it is a pleasure to see him at his ease and, as he deems, unobserved. If a bird or animal thinks itself noticed it seldom does much, some will cease singing immediately they are looked at. The day is perceptibly longer already. As the sun goes down, the western sky often takes a lovely green tint in this month, and one stays to look at it, forgetting the dark and miry way homewards. I think the moments when we forget the mire of the world are the most precious. After a while the green corn rises higher out of the rude earth. 
    Pure colour almost always gives the idea of fire, or rather it is perhaps as if a light shone through as well as colour itself. The fresh green blade of corn is like this, so pellucid, so clear and pure in its green as to seem to shine with colour. It is not brilliant—not a surface gleam or an enamel,—it is stained through. Beside the moist clods the slender flags arise filled with the sweetness of the earth. Out of the darkness under—that darkness which knows no day save when the ploughshare opens its chinks—they have come to the light. To the light they have brought a colour which will attract the sunbeams from now till harvest. They fall more pleasantly on the corn, toned, as if they mingled with it. Seldom do we realise that the world is practically no thicker to us than the print of our footsteps on the path. Upon that surface we walk and act our comedy of life, and what is beneath is nothing to us. But it is out from that under-world, from the dead and the unknown, from the cold moist ground, that these green blades have sprung. Yonder a steam-plough pants up the hill, groaning with its own strength, yet all that strength and might of wheels, and piston, and chains, cannot drag from the earth one single blade like these. Force cannot make it; it must grow—an easy word to speak or write, in fact full of potency. It is this mystery of growth and life, of beauty, and sweetness, and colour, starting forth from the clods that gives the corn its power over me. Somehow I identify myself with it; I live again as I see it. Year by year it is the same, and when I see it I feel that I have once more entered on a new life. And I think the spring, with its green corn, its violets, and hawthorn-leaves, and increasing song, grows yearly dearer and more dear to this our ancient earth. So many centuries have flown! Now it is the manner with all natural things to gather as it were by smallest particles. The merest grain of sand drifts unseen into a crevice, and by-and-by another; after a while there is a heap; a century and it is a mound, and then every one observes and comments on it. Time itself has gone on like this; the years have accumulated, first in drifts, then in heaps, and now a vast mound, to which the mountains are knolls, rises up and overshadows us. Time lies heavy on the world. The old, old earth is glad to turn from the cark and care of drifted centuries to the first sweet blades of green. 
     There is sunshine to-day after rain, and every lark is singing. Across the vale a broad cloud-shadow descends the hillside, is lost in the hollow, and presently, without warning, slips over the edge, coming swiftly along the green tips. The sunshine follows—the warmer for its momentary absence. Far, far down in a grassy coomb stands a solitary cornrick, conical roofed, casting a lonely shadow—marked because so solitary, and beyond it on the rising slope is a brown copse. The leafless branches take a brown tint in the sunlight; on the summit above there is furze; then more hill lines drawn against the sky. In the tops of the dark pines at the corner of the copse, could the glance sustain itself to see them, there are finches warming themselves in the sunbeams. The thick needles shelter them, from the current of air, and the sky is bluer above the pines. Their hearts are full already of the happy days to come, when the moss yonder by the beech, and the lichen on the fir-trunk, and the loose fibres caught in the fork of an unbending bough, shall furnish forth a sufficient mansion for their young. Another broad cloud-shadow, and another warm embrace of sunlight. All the serried ranks of the green corn bow at the word of command as the wind rushes over them. 
     There is largeness and freedom here. Broad as the down and free as the wind, the thought can roam high over the narrow roofs in the vale. Nature has affixed no bounds to thought. All the palings, and walls, and crooked fences deep down yonder are artificial. The fetters and traditions, the routine, the dull roundabout which deadens the spirit like the cold moist earth, are the merest nothings. Here it is easy with the physical eye to look over the highest roof. The moment the eye of the mind is filled with the beauty of things natural an equal freedom and width of view come to it. Step aside from the trodden footpath of personal experience, throwing away the petty cynicism born of petty hopes disappointed. Step out upon the broad down beside the green corn, and let its freshness become part of life.  
The wind passes, and it bends—let the wind, too, pass over the spirit. From the cloud-shadow it emerges to the sunshine—let the heart come out from the shadow of roofs to the open glow of the sky. High above, the songs of the larks fall as rain—receive it with open hands. Pure is the colour of the green flags, the slender-pointed blades—let the thought be pure as the light that shines through that colour. Broad are the downs and open the aspect—gather the breadth and largeness of view. Never can that view be wide enough and large enough, there will always be room to aim higher. As the air of the hills enriches the blood, so let the presence of these beautiful things enrich the inner sense. One memory of the green corn, fresh beneath the sun and wind, will lift up the heart from the clods.

Monday, January 02, 2006



This article was published in January 1883 in Good Words . In November 1885, it formed one of a collection of essays in The Open Air .

Coming like a white wall the rain reaches me, and in an instant everything is gone from sight that is more than ten yards distant. The narrow upland road is beaten to a darker hue, and two runnels of water rush along at the sides, where, when the chalk-laden streamlets dry, blue splinters of flint will be exposed in the channels. For a moment the air seems driven away by the sudden pressure, and I catch my breath and stand still with one shoulder forward to receive the blow. Hiss, the land shudders under the cold onslaught; hiss, and on the blast goes, and the sound with it, for the very fury of the rain, after the first second, drowns its own noise. There is not a single creature visible, the low and stunted hedgerows, bare of leaf, could conceal nothing; the rain passes straight through to the ground. Crooked and gnarled, the bushes are locked together as if in no other way could they hold themselves against the gales. Such little grass as there is on the mounds is thin and short, and could not hide a mouse. There is no finch, sparrow, thrush, blackbird. As the wave of rain passes over and leaves a hollow between the waters, that which has gone and that to come, the ploughed lands on either side are seen to be equally bare. In furrows full of water, a hare would not sit, nor partridge run; the larks, the patient larks which endure almost everything, even they have gone. Furrow on furrow with flints dotted on their slopes, and chalk lumps, that is all. The cold earth gives no sweet petal of flower, nor can any bud of thought or bloom of imagination start forth in the mind. But step by step, forcing a way through the rain and over the ridge, I find a small and stunted copse down in the next hollow. It is rather a wide hedge than a copse, and stands by the road in the corner of a field. The boughs are bare; still they break the storm, and it is a relief to wait a while there and rest. After a minute or so the eye gets accustomed to the branches and finds a line of sight through the narrow end of the copse. Within twenty yards—just outside the copse—there are a number of lapwings, dispersed about the furrows. One runs a few feet forward and picks something from the ground; another runs in the same manner to one side; a third rushes in still a third direction. Their crests, their green-tinted wings, and white breasts are not disarranged by the torrent. Something in the style of the birds recalls the wagtail, though they are so much larger. Beyond these are half a dozen more, and in a straggling line others extend out into the field. They have found some slight shelter here from the sweeping of the rain and wind, and are not obliged to face it as in the open. Minutely searching every clod they gather their food in imperceptible items from the surface.

Sodden leaves lie in the furrows along the side of the copse; broken and decaying burdocks still uphold their jagged stems, but will be soaked away by degrees; dank grasses droop outwards! the red seed of a dock is all that remains of the berries and fruit, the seeds and grain of autumn. Like the hedge, the copse is vacant. Nothing moves within, watch as carefully as I may. The boughs are blackened by wet and would touch cold. From the grasses to the branches there is nothing any one would like to handle, and I stand apart even from the bush that keeps away the rain. The green plovers are the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness. Heavily as the rain may fall, cold as the saturated wind may blow, the plovers remind us of the beauty of shape, colour, and animation. They seem too slender to withstand the blast—they should have gone with the swallows—too delicate for these rude hours; yet they alone face them.

Once more the wave of rain has passed, and yonder the hills appear; these are but uplands. The nearest and highest has a green rampart, visible for a moment against the dark sky, and then again wrapped in a toga of misty cloud. So the chilled Roman drew his toga around him in ancient days as from that spot he looked wistfully southwards and thought of Italy. Wee-ah-wee! Some chance movement has been noticed by the nearest bird, and away they go at once as if with the same wings, sweeping overhead, then to the right, then to the left, and then back again, till at last lost in the coming shower. After they have thus vibrated to and fro long enough, like a pendulum coming to rest, they will alight in the open field on the ridge behind. There in drilled ranks, well closed together, all facing the same way, they will stand for hours. Let us go also and let the shower conceal them. Another time my path leads over the hills.

It is afternoon, which in winter is evening. The sward of the down is dry under foot, but hard, and does not lift the instep with the springy feel of summer. The sky is gone, it is not clouded, it is swathed in gloom. Upwards the still air thickens, and there is no arch or vault of heaven. Formless and vague, it seems some vast shadow descending. The sun has disappeared, and the light there still is, is left in the atmosphere enclosed by the gloomy mist as pools are left by a receding tide. Through the sand the water slips, and through the mist the light glides away. Nearer comes the formless shadow and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there are no means on the open downs of knowing whether the direction pursued is right or wrong, till a boulder (which is a landmark) is perceived. Thence the way is down the slope, the last and limit of the hills there. It is a rough descent, the paths worn by sheep may at any moment cause a stumble. At the foot is a waggon-track beside a low hedge, enclosing the first arable field. The hedge is a guide, but the ruts are deep, and it still needs slow and careful walking. Wee-ah-wee! Up from the dusky surface of the arable field springs a plover, and the notes are immediately repeated by another. They can just be seen as darker bodies against the shadow as they fly overhead. Wee-ah-wee! The sound grows fainter as they fetch a longer circle in the gloom.

There is another winter resort of plovers in the valley where a barren waste was ploughed some years ago. A few furze bushes still stand in the hedges about it, and the corners are full of rushes. Not all the grubbing of furze and bushes, the deep ploughing and draining, has succeeded in rendering the place fertile like the adjacent fields. The character of a marsh adheres to it still. So long as there is a crop, the lapwings keep away, but as soon as the ploughs turn up the ground in autumn they return. The place lies low, and level with the waters in the ponds and streamlets. A mist hangs about it in the evening, and even when there is none, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere while passing it. From their hereditary home the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.